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Enhancing Representation and Equity in STEM Fields Through the Pathway Approach

Updated: Jun 25, 2023

Bill Gates, recent article "A map from Classroom to Career," reignited my thoughts on K-12 career pathway approaches. K-12 career pathway approaches, enable instructors and school mentors to match students' skills and interests with potential careers, thereby offering them a structured pathway to follow through college to their elected career. The roadmap is curated with the intention of engaging students early and fostering their interest in technology and other STEM related fields to assist in obtaining meaningful and fulfilling careers. However, this approach has also garnered attention in relation to how the career pathway approaches can be utilized to address the underrepresentation of BIPOC communities as well as girls and women in STEM fields. The issue of underrepresentation of BIPOC communities, girls, and women in STEM fields is complex in nature and while there has been research conducted in relation to the utilization of career pathways to address the issue of underrepresentation a definitive answer as to whether career pathways are the optimal strategy has yet to be proven definitively. However, the need for increased representation in STEM fields and the proven success of the career pathways warrant much consideration regarding schools adopting career pathways with supplemental mentorship and career guidance resources as those two options together provide direction and intentional inclusiveness.

Due to my interest in tomatoes and MR. O's SAUCE & OIL – YouTube page it is natural for me to connect the definition of pathways and my interest in tomatoes. The paper by Tohge et al. (2020) focuses on the natural variation in tomato plants and explores the pathway structure and metabolic regulation of fruit polyphenolics in the Lycopersicon complex. The authors note that while primary metabolic pathways in plants are well-defined and conserved across species, the pathways involved in specialized metabolisms, such as the production of fruit polyphenolics, are less understood and more variable among certain species. Therefore, just like understanding these specialized metabolic pathways is crucial because it can provide insights into the diversity of plant compounds and their potential benefits. There is a need for educational researchers to study the impact of structured pathways to increase equity and diversity of underserved and underrepresented youths pursuing degrees and careers in the STEM fields.

In the case of tomatoes, polyphenolics are a class of compounds known for their antioxidant properties, which have been associated with various health benefits. By studying the pathway structure and metabolic regulation of fruit polyphenolics in different tomato species, researchers have better understood the factors influencing the production and accumulation of these compounds. Similarly, the concept of pathways relevant in plant metabolism must also be applicable to other fields, including STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering, and Mathematics) education and representation. In academia, "learning pathways" or "path programs" refers to structured educational approaches that guide students through courses and experiences to develop specific skills or knowledge in a particular field.

Therefore, there is a need for researchers in education to study the impact of structured pathways approaches to guide to provide equity and diversity representation of underserved and underrepresented communities in the STEM-oriented pathways if there is no such study currently being conducted. These pathways can help students navigate their educational journey, provide a clear direction toward their goals, and increase the representation of the underserved and underrepresented communities in the STEM fields.

As we pause and allow the tomato and pathway analogy to take root, I will discuss next the recent article by Bill Gates, A Map from Classroom to Career | Bill Gates ( In this article, Mr. Gates talked about his visit to Chaffey College, a community school in Southern California in San Bernadino County. Mr. Gates during his visit to the campus said he learned about the school's "pathways" approach, which matched students' skills and interests with potential careers and provides them with a roadmap to ensure their secondary and post-secondary education is driven by the students’ preferred career. Additionally, Mr. Gates, said he enjoyed the time he spent with students from the cybersecurity pathway, and was impressed how the students already had job opportunities and offers even though they had not yet graduated. According to Mr. Gates, these students were too young to drive, but he is talking with them about cybersecurity. The students were fascinated with technology. One of the students even built himself a computer during the pandemic.

The accomplishments of Chaffey College are outstanding, serve as a phenomenal example, and is a powerful addition to the progress that has been made, it does not tackle the lack of representation amongst females, individuals with disabilities, or BIPOCs in STEM, especially the BIPOC communities that are underserved. The journey for students from underserved and underrepresented communities within STEM is often inequitable and fraught with many challenges experienced both on the secondary and post-secondary education levels. On this journey far too many BIPOCs become discouraged and drop out for assorted reasons, primarily low self-esteem, confidence, and lack of support.

In the context of increasing representation and equity in STEM fields, the pathway approach can play a crucial role. By designing inclusive and accessible pathways, at schools and workforce development institutions in addition educational institutions and employers can provide underrepresented groups, such as women and minority students, with the necessary resources and support to pursue and succeed in STEM disciplines. These pathways can encompass mentorship programs, scholarships, research opportunities, and networking events, among other initiatives, to create a supportive and empowering environment for students from diverse backgrounds.

Another key component to the pathway approach is that they can be formulated to take into consideration and address systemic barriers and biases that have historically disadvantaged certain groups. By providing clear pathways and targeted support, institutions and employers can help break down these barriers and create opportunities for individuals who may have faced obstacles in accessing and advancing in STEM education and careers. Reflecting on our tomato and pathway analogy, pathways are crucial in various domains, from plant metabolism to STEM education. Understanding and studying the pathways involved in specialized processes, such as fruit polyphenolic production in tomatoes, can provide valuable insights into the diversity and regulation of these compounds. Similarly, in increasing representation and equity in STEM fields, the pathway approach can guide educational institutions and employers in creating inclusive and supportive environments that help underrepresented groups overcome barriers and succeed in their pursuits and representation in STEM careers.

Authored by Dr. Ayo Olufade, Ph.D.

Think STEM Careers! You Have the Opportunity to Create the Future and the Privilege of Deciding What’s in It! ~ Dr. Ayo Olufade, PhD

Excel in Learning. Excel in Life.

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